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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | There used to be a debate over whether or not video games could be art. Now the new kid on the block is Virtual Reality (VR). Those at the forefront of storytelling are starting to see that VR is neither a fad nor a toy, and that it has a place alongside more established forms of artistic expression. The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) had its first VR program in 2016. This year, TFF’s Tribeca Immersive — an umbrella term for all Virtual Arcade and Storyscapes projects — will show how much the art form has grown.
Thirty VR exhibits and tech installation comprise Tribeca Immersive. Many of them deal with serious, even tragic subject matter. A highlight will be “The People’s House,” a virtual history of the White House, by Felix & Paul Studios. Meanwhile, “The Last Goodbye” will place users in a virtual concentration camp, with narration from a Holocaust survivor.
We spoke with Loren Hammonds, TFF’s programmer of Film & Experiential, about how they selected the entries. “The storytelling in VR has evolved at an alarming rate,” Hammonds said. “Even between last year and this year’s selections, and you can see the difference. That was part of my curatorial decision — to focus on story, much the same as we do for our film program at Tribeca.”
One of the commercial hits that debuted at the Virtual Arcade last year was Baobab Studio’s “Invasion!” — an experience where a cute rabbit saves the world. Hammonds says it’s one of the most viewed VR experiences across all platforms. “Something about that little fluffy white bunny seems to connect, no matter where you are in the globe.”
Baobab Studios is returning to the Virtual Arcade this year with “Rainbow Crow,” a VR experience based on a Lenape Native American legend about an eternal winter. We had a look at an early build of the VR, and spoke with Baobab’s Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell about it.
Users will notice right away that “Rainbow Crow” avoids hyper-realistic graphics. Instead, its world has a “dithered” effect that gives the animals a soft, fuzzy look, rather than the sharp, geometric edges of many virtual worlds. In our demo, we also had the chance to hear the titular crow sing. In the story, Crow has a beautiful singing voice, so Baobab enlisted Grammy winner John Legend to provide the vocals.
The rest of the cast is made up of a diverse group of performers, including narration by Native American tribal elder Randy Edmonds. Maureen Fan pointed out that, “Not only do we have a diverse cast, and it’s based off a Native American legend, but it is about the animals coming to accept each other’s differences, and value each other for those differences.”
Several other creators return. Among them is Penrose Studios, who were behind “Allumette,” a heartbreaking, 20-minute VR experience in last year’s festival. Eugene Chung of Penrose Studios discussed his new project. “The first part of ‘Arden’s Wake’ is what we’re releasing at Tribeca,” he said, “but this first chapter is already almost as long as all of ‘Allumette’ itself, and far more visually complex. We’re excited to have it on the global stage of the Tribeca Film Festival.”
Last year, the VR studio Wevr presented “Holidays: Christmas VR,” which functioned as a side story to the feature film “Holidays.” This year, they’re debuting “Apex.” Wevr co-founder Anthony Batt described it as an “intense immersive experience in a dreamlike state, that has a feeling like entropy is occurring all around you; it feels as if you’re standing in someone else’s dream.”
We asked Batt about how Wevr’s experience in the festival last year influenced the release of this new project. “The Tribeca Film Festival shines a light on the producers and the creators of the projects in a very positive way,” he said. “It’s a very coveted spot to get selected, and we’ve been very fortunate to have ‘Apex’ there this year. ‘Apex’ offers an interesting view of what immersive storytelling can be.”
Asked what Wevr looks for when producing a new VR project, Batt said it began with finding “people that have a point of view. Specifically with immersive media, you look for people that can actually answer this important question: ‘Why VR?’ ”
Eugene Chung of Penrose Studios agreed that VR requires a unique perspective. “With different art forms, stories have to be adapted to fit those art forms. You can’t just take a stage play like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and turn it instantly into a movie. You have to adapt the play for the screen and rethink how to tell that story in cinema,” he explained, noting that “Arden’s Wake” and “Allumette” were “built from the ground up to be told in VR and, because stories can transcend media, they certainly could be told in other art forms — but they would have to be adapted for them. The stories that Penrose crafts are uniquely native to VR and Augmented Reality, and that’s part of the magic.”
Batt compared VR’s current state to how indie films were a few years ago. “[VR] is finding its audience at the festivals, but over time, the festivals are a good proxy to the greater audience, that this is an interesting place. Therefore, we see that [VR] is going to grow. A lot of these projects will influence people in the future,” said Batt.
Chung added, “The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s population still hasn’t seen VR, so this continues to present exciting opportunities. It still seems that the world is in a discovery phase with VR, and it’s exciting to be creating and innovating in that context.”
Tribeca Immersive programming runs April 21–29, on the fifth floor of the Tribeca Festival Hub (50 Varick St., btw. Beach & Laight Sts.). Tickets are $40 each, for a three-hour window. Visit tribecafilm.com/festival/tickets or call 646-502-5296. General festival info at tribecafilm.com/festival.